Eliza Downey: Since training with the Ulster team since mid May, I have learnt so much about the game, always coming away from each session with something new.
The girls have been very welcoming, taking me under their wing and showing me the ropes, and they, along with the great support I received from the management, have definitely helped me progress as a player.
They made me feel like part of the team and have given me respect as a rugby player as opposed to 'the Gaelic girl trying to play rugby.' I've made some good friends and can only think of positive elements from my whole experience.
IR: Can you give us an outline of how you became involved in rugby and your rugby career to date?
ED: I've always enjoyed watching rugby and going to games, and my dad and brother have both played for Banbridge in the past. My first experience of playing was in first year of university, when, along with another girl from my Gaelic team, we helped out a friend by playing in a Sevens tournament.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I didn't rejoin the rugby girls at UUJ until last November.
Having played a few Varsity games and Carrick 10s, I was invited along to trial for the Ulster squad. I then registered with Cooke Ladies and haven't looked back since!
IR: Sport is obviously a big part of your life and aside from rugby, you've been playing Gaelic football for Down. Can you tell us a bit about this and your achievements in the sport so far?
ED: I've always had a keen interest in sport and over the years have played a number of them. In the past I've played netball for my school, Sacred Heart Grammar, and held a place on the Under-17 Northern Ireland team.
I have also played basketball for Newry and the Ulster Under-19 team. I have won All-Ireland silver and bronze medals in junior athletics, and also hold a green belt in Judo.
After all these though my first sport would have been Ladies Gaelic football, which I've been playing now for 13 years.
I play my club football with Annaclone Ladies, where in the last few years we have won the Intermediate Championship twice.
I have been involved in the county scene since I was selected for the Under-12 team, and at the age of 15 was brought onto the senior ladies team. I've secured my starting position on the team ever since then, and this year, under new management, we have progressed to the furthest point in the senior championship in the county's history.
When I started university at Jordanstown, I joined the Gaelic team there, where I received an Ulster Colleges All-Star and a replacement Ulster All-Star.
During my years of playing for Jordanstown, we have won two Dowd Cups (Ulster), the O'Connor Shield and Cup (All-Ireland), and All-Ireland League titles.
As a result, we received 'University Team of the Year' last year as well as 'All Achievement of the Year'. On a personal note, I was awarded the Sunday Life Sports Merit Award and have recently been nominated for an All-Ireland All-Star, which will be announced in November.
As you can see, sport has had a significant role in my life, with the majority of my free time spent training or playing matches. But I wouldn't change a thing!
IR: How do you manage to juggle your training commitments between rugby and Gaelic football and what similarities/ differences do you see between both sports?
ED: I'm lucky enough to have coaches and managers in both Gaelic and rugby who understand my commitment and love for both sports.
Working closely with them enables me to remain dedicated to both games and create a programme that which will assist my progress as an athlete and reduce the chances of burn out.
Both rugby and Gaelic have many transferable skills, and I feel that both sports can learn a lot from each other, which could be a great positive move in the integration of the sports.
IR: How do you feel the team preparations are going ahead of the Interpro play-off against Connacht on Saturday?
ED: With this being my first year in the team, I have been impressed by the professional attitude of both management and players in the run-up to the Interpros.
Fitness testing, strength and conditioning, and the emphasis put on our own personal fitness programme, along with the support from the (Ulster) Branch and our sponsor, Laser, have been very beneficial in the progression of our team.
IR: What are your main aims for your rugby career, particularly following on from the Interprovincial play-off?
ED: My long term goals in rugby are to gain as much experience as I can in the next few years by taking part in as many club games and tournaments/tours as I can and by playing with and against players of a high standard, which will help me better my game.
My first year with Ulster has left me feeling highly positive about the progression the girls have made, and in the near future I hope we can reach an Interpro final and secure the title which would be highly constructive in raising the ladies game in our province.
IR: What is the best thing about playing rugby and being involved in the sport at various levels?
ED: Rugby has reinvigorated my passion for sport. The adrenaline and buzz from making a good hit, scoring a try or being part of its lead-up is second to none.
It has posed a new challenge for me and I have enjoyed learning about all the different aspects of the game. The camaraderie on my teams and the support given from the girls makes the experience enjoyable and a lot less daunting.
IrishRugby.ie: Laura, you've been involved with the Ulster Women's squad now for quite a few years and represented Cooke, Ulster and Ireland. Can you tell us a bit about your playing career to date?
Laura Nicholl: I started playing rugby 15 years ago, at the age of 14 at Antrim Rugby Club. I played there for a couple of years but had to move to Cooke RFC when I was 16, as I had been selected to play for Ulster, which required me to play at higher level.
I have been playing for Ulster ever since. I was selected to play for Ireland when I was 17 and got my first caps at the European Championships, followed by the World Cup. I was recalled to the Irish squad three years ago, but due to work commitments, had to turn down the opportunity.
IR: How did you get involved in playing rugby?
LN: I was into various sports when I was younger and always wanted to try everything! So when my local rugby club, Antrim, started a Ladies team, I went along with some of my school friends and I was instantly hooked!
IR: You were one of the youngest female players to become involved in the international scene - can you tell us a bit about this and how it felt to be selected for the Irish team at such a young age?
LN: It was quite frightening, as I was surrounded by older and much more experienced players. But I was well looked after and had great support from my family and friends and school at the time.
A couple of days after coming home from the World Cup, I was starting my A levels, so I was lucky to have very understanding teachers and parents!
Being involved with the Ireland squad at such a young age gave me so many opportunities, and I felt very privileged, although in hindsight, maybe at such a young age I didn't really appreciate this enough.
Playing on the international stage gave me the chance to travel to loads of different places and play against some really good teams.
I am very proud to say that I have represented my country in a sport that I absolutely love - it really has given me some amazing times.
IR: How has Women's rugby progressed since you first began playing? Do you notice a big difference in the numbers coming on board to play now?
LN: The Women's game has progressed immensely in different areas. It has gained a lot more respect over the years, as people have realised that we are very serious about our sport.
In terms of teams, there are now a lot more in Ulster and I really hope this continues to grow. I think it's great that we now have development officers in place to develop the game at schools level, and also that there is now an Under-18 league, which certainly wouldn't have happened when I started playing.
This can only be good for the long-term development of the game, as the skills will be much more advanced by the time they reach senior level.
All our competitive nations have junior set-ups and we have to keep up with them. I think the overall standard is getting better and better, and we have a lot of young and very talented players, which is exciting for future of Women's rugby in Ulster.
IR: The Ulster women have a new management team, as well as a new sponsor in Laser. How have all of these things helped to motivate the team?
LN: While we have had sponsors in previous seasons, this is the first time the Branch has secured one for us. So this in itself really makes us feel that we are being taken seriously, and certainly does give us a boost.
As a squad, we are very appreciative of the support from both the Ulster Branch and Laser. When you are getting any sort of backing like this, it makes you more determined to prove yourself as a squad.
The new management were all relatively new to Women's rugby but came on board with a really professional and enthusiastic attitude right from the start. So this set the mood for the season.
It's always nice to go into a new season with a fresh attitude and new ideas. Our management have set out a structure and targets for the season, and I know that they have been impressed by the girls' commitment, hard work and determined approach when it comes to training and matches.
I think we may actually have surpassed some of our targets! It also helps having the input of someone like Chris Galway, our strength and conditioning coach, to add a more professional edge to the season in terms of fitness testing, etc.
Both the management and players have shown great commitment and enthusiasm during pre-season and during the Interpros, so I hope it continues.
IR: What is the mood like in the Ulster Women's squad as the girls prepare for the final play-off against Connacht this weekend?How are preparations going and what are the squad's aspirations going into the weekend and beyond?
LN: The commitment from the girls towards training, etc. has been really great, especially when you consider how much time it takes up.
At the start of the season we were probably aiming to treat the new season as more of a developmental one, however, from the first match against Munster, it was clear that the girls had a determination and belief that we could certainly be contenders to win the whole series.
Our defeat to Leinster was really disappointing, as we had gone into the match confident that we could put up a good fight, however it wasn't meant to be on the day. But we will be going into the play-off determined to restore some pride in the squad.
Looking beyond the Interpros, it would be great if the Ulster squad had other matches throughout the year and could continue to train together.
Looking to next season's Interpros, I think we have an exciting future in Ulster with talented players coming through. Certainly next season we will be going out to win the title!
IR: Do you plan to continue your involvement in rugby once your playing career has come to an end, if so in what capacity?
LN: I have been playing rugby for so long that I would hate not to be involved once I retire. I hope to gain some coaching qualifications, which will enable me to help out and still be involved, particularly at my club Cooke.
IR: Finally Laura, for you, what is the best thing about playing rugby?
LN: There are so many things about rugby that I love. It's a really tough, physical and exciting game, and probably what I love most about rugby is the fact that it is a team sport.
Over the years I have had so many brilliant experiences and have had the chance to travel and play against some really good teams and it gives me great pride to say that I have played for my province and country.
I have been, and continue to be, surrounded by some really great people thanks to rugby, and have friends that will hopefully be in my life for a long time.
- With thanks to Maire Cahill of Ulster Rugby